"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: 2009 Playoffs

Just Like Old Times

Andy tips his cap after leaving the game up 3-1 in the seventh (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)The Yankees won six pennants in Andy Pettitte’s first nine years with the team. They fell three outs short in 2004, Pettitte’s first year as a Houston Astro, but Pettitte claimed another flag with the ‘Stros in 2005. Last night, Andy Pettitte punched his ticket to his eighth and the Yankees’ fortieth World Series, exorcising the ghosts of the 2004 ALCS and 2002 and 2005 ALDS with a fine performance and a 5-2 Game Six victory over the Angels.

Pettitte made just one mistake all night, a hanging curveball that man Jeff Mathis hit for a double to lead off the third for the Angels. Mathis moved to third on a groundout and scored on a two-out Bobby Abreu single. It was the only run the Halos would get off Pettitte in his 6 1/3 innings of work. Pettitte got into a bit of a jam with two outs in the sixth when Torii Hunter singled and Vlad Guerrero doubled him to third, but Hunter’s single was a chopper that didn’t get beyond the infield grass and Guerrero’s double was a bloop to shallow right that Vlad golfed out of the dirt. Andy then fell behind Kendry Morales, 3-0, but got a Morales to chop a comebacker right at his beak for the final out of the inning.

In the meantime, the Yankees put up a three-spot on Angels starter Joe Saunders in the fourth. After Robinson Cano walked and the newly Swish-hawked Nick Swisher punched a single through the shortstop hole, Melky Cabrera bunted both runners up. Saunders then pitched around Derek Jeter, walking him on eight pitches, to get to slumping fellow lefty Johnny Damon. Damon got ahead 2-0, then punched the 2-1 pitch up the middle to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. After Mark Teixeira reached on an infield single deep in the shortstop hole that reloaded the bases, Saunders walked in a third run on five pitches to Alex Rodriguez. The last pitch to Rodriguez seemed to be a strike (Alex was seen saying as much to Mick Kelleher at first base), but one got the sense that Saunders got off easy given Rodriguez’s hot hitting in this postseason. Darren Oliver got Jorge Posada to hit into a double play to end the threat, but Pettitte and the Yankees had their lead.

With one out in the top of the seventh, Juan Rivera singled on Pettitte’s 99th pitch of the night. Joe Girardi then called on Joba Chamberlain to pitch to the righty Mathis. Mike Scioscia countered with switch-hitting Maicer Izturis, thus taking one of his hottest hitters out of the game. Given his struggles in this series, Chamberlain seemed like a dubious choice with a slim, two-run lead, but Joba got Izturis to hit a would-be double play ball to shortstop. The ball took a funny bounce on Derek Jeter, but rolled right to Cano standing on second base for a fielder’s choice. Joba then got Erick Aybar to ground out to Jeter on two pitches.

Just six outs from the World Series, Girardi didn’t mess around. He skipped right over the scuffling Phil Hughes and went straight to Mariano Rivera. Rivera was greeted by a Chone Figgins single that was later plated by a single by Guerrero, but the other three men he faced in the eighth grounded out to the right side of the infield.

Nursing a one-run lead, the Yankee bats added some insurance in the eighth, again initiated by a Cano lead-off walk, this time on four pitches from Ervin Santana. With Scott Kazmir on in relief, Nick Swisher attempted to bunt Cano to second, but second baseman Howie Kendrick dropped the throw at first base leaving men on first and second with none out. Cabrera then attempted to bunt both runners up, but Kazmir babied the throw which sailed over Kendrick allowing Cano to score and pinch-runner Brett Gardner to go to third. After an unproductive groundout by Jeter, who has been battling a cold, Damon worked a seven-pitch walk, and Mark Teixeira hit a sac fly to deep center to plate Gardner and set the score at 5-2. Jered Weaver then came on and walked Rodriguez on four pitches before striking out Posada on six.

With that, Rivera popped back out of the dugout and set the Angels down in order, wrapping up the pennant by striking out pinch-hitter Gary Matthews Jr. with a fastball up and away.

the Yankees celebrate the pennant (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)There’s a sense that the Yankees are back in familiar territory, but while Pettitte will be playing in his eighth World Series, Jeter and Rivera their seventh, and Posada his sixth, this is a first for the vast majority of the team. Hideki Matsui was on the 2003 pennant winners, Jose Molina was on the 2002 Angels, Johnny Damon and Eric Hinske were on the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox, respectively, and Damaso Marte was on the 2005 White Sox, but for the other 16 men on the roster, including Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and even home grown Yankees Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, this will be their first World Series.

One could see that difference in the celebrations. While Rivera and Posada shared a long, quiet embrace, Teixeira and Rodriguez acted like, well, like they had just won the American League pennant.

The Yankees have two days to celebrate and prepare for the arrival of the Phillies on Wednesday. With Pettitte having done his job, CC Sabathia will start Game One of the World Series in a stellar matchup against fellow lefty Cliff Lee. For the first time since 1996 the Yankees will be the challengers to the defending world champions. That’s fine by me. Feels like old times.

No End In Sight

Not long after opening the gates to fans, the Yankees and Major League Baseball have postponed Game Six of the ALCS to Sunday night in the 8:20 time slot reserved for Game Seven. If the Angels win Game Six, Game Seven will be played Monday night with first pitch at 7:57. The delay allows the Angels to skip Joe Saunders and start Jered Weaver in Sunday’s Game Six, though that might be to the Yankees’ benefit as Saunders has handled the Yankees better than Weaver in their most recent starts and Weaver’s road ERA is nearly two runs higher than his home mark. In his last start in the Bronx on September 14, Weaver allowed five runs on eight hits and four walks in 7 1/3 innings in an Angels loss. For that reason, Scioscia will stick with Saunders tomorrow night.

The real drag would be if the Angels force a Game Seven. That would not only force CC Sabathia to pitch on Monday, pushing his first World Series start back to Game Three and eliminating any hope of him making three Series starts, but would also draw a John Lackey on three-day’s rest. It would be thrilling baseball, but I’m sure Yankee fans would rather save the thrills for the World Series.

At any rate, until tomorrow night . . .

Remember The Alamo

Even if they came close to ending the series in Anaheim and likely feel a little bit diminished about having to crank things back up in the Bronx prior to the World Series, the Yankees have to feel pretty comfortable heading into tonight’s Game Six up three games to two in the ALCS with CC Sabathia lurking to pitch Game Seven if necessary. The have to because the only other option invites the ghosts of 2004 to mingle with old dames Mystique and Aura, who are still hanging their inspirational posters in the new Yankee clubhouse.

There are only five Yankees, and no coaches, remaining from the 2004 team that blew a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against the Red Sox–Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Alex Rodriguez–but it surely lingers in the minds of Johnny Damon, who was on the other side of that collapse, and Andy Pettitte, who spent October 2004 in Texas, nursing his surgically repaired pitching elbow and likely wishing he could have taken the ball for his old mates in the disastrous Game Seven.

Pettitte gets his chance tonight, looking to put the Yankees into the World Series for the first time since 2003, the final year of his initial run with the team. Alex and I both expect Pettitte to come up big, but the fact that the Yankees are 0-5 in their last two ALCS in potential series-clinching games will linger in my mind until they put a “1″ in the win column there.

Pettitte’s start tonight will be his first home start of this postseason. Pettitte struggled at the new Yankee Stadium early in the regular season. On May 7, in his third start at the new park, he gave up four home runs in six innings in a loss to the Rays. In his previous start, he had allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings to the Angels in a game the Yankees came back to win. However, Pettitte seemed to finally settle in at the new digs down the stretch. In four home starts in August and September, he posted a 2.52 ERA and compiled this line: 25 IP, 22 H, 7 R, 11 BB, 20 K. Yes, the walks were a bit high, but he allowed just one home run in those four starts, a seventh-inning solo shot by David Murphy.

Joe Saunders is the man charged with extending the Angels’ season. Saunders pitched very well, and very similarly, in his last two starts against the Yankees, September 21 in Anaheim (8 1/3 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 HR, 0 BB, 3 K), and in Game Two of this series in the Bronx (7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 1 BB, 5 K). With that ALCS start included, Saunders is 7-0 with a 2.56 ERA in nine starts since returning from a disabled-list stay due to a tired pitching shoulder.

Despite a tendency to overmanage in other areas thus far this series, Joe Girardi is running out his standard lineup tonight, complete with Nick Swisher batting in his usual eight spot. The only question now is if they’ll get the game in. They’ll try, primarily to avoid facing Jered Weaver and John Lackey in the final two games. At this point in the postseason, I doubt there’s much risk of losing gate due to a one-day delay.

“We just liked the matchup much better.”

Howie Kendrick scores the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Three of the ALCS (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Let’s cut to the chase here. After a 13-inning Game Two, the Yankees and Angels were tied in extra inning again in Game Three, this time 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. In relief of starter Andy Pettitte–who allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings on a solo homer by Howie Kendrick in the fifth and a two-out, two-run, game-tying shot by Vladimir Guerrero in the sixth–Joe Girardi had already used Joba Chamberlain (who allowed what was then the go-ahead run following a Kendrick triple in the seventh), Damaso Marte, Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, and Mariano Rivera.

Rivera came on in the bottom of the tenth following a lead-off double by backup catcher Jeff Mathis off Hughes. Erick Aybar greeted Rivera with a sac bunt that Rivera, attempting to get Mathis at third, bounced past Alex Rodriguez in a play that eerily recalled Rivera’s error in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. Rivera’s throw hit the dirt because he made it while spinning and falling to the grass on the third-base side of the mound. The error would have won the game for the Angels had Johnny Damon not backed up the throw perfectly, holding Mathis at third. With the infield playing in, Chone Figgins hit a hard shot down the first base line that Mark Teixeira smothered, holding Mathis and forcing Figgins out at first for the first out. With runners on second and third and one out, Girardi had Rivera walk Bobby Abreu to set up a force at every base and sent Jerry Hairston Jr. out to left field to replace the weak-armed Damon in case he needed to make a potentially game-saving throw to the plate. Rivera got Torii Hunter to ground into a 3-2 force to Teixeira that erased Mathis at home, then got Vlad Guerrero to ground out to Teixeira’s right to end the inning.

The catch was that, when Girardi sent Hairston into the field, Hairston was already in the game as the designated hitter having pinch-hit for Brett Gardner, who pinch-ran for original DH Hideki Matsui, who walked to put the tying run on base in the eighth. Gardner was caught stealing two pitches before Jorge Posada hit a game-tying solo homer. Hairston hit for Gardner because Gardner’s spot in the order came due when the Angels’ lefty closer Brian Fuentes was on the mound (never mind that Hairston hit .242/.319/.422 against lefties during the regular season while Gardner hit .291/.381/.400 against them and had a reverse split in Triple-A in 2008 as well).

Moving Hairston into the field put Rivera in the batting order in Damon’s place, which was due up third in the following inning. Rivera used 17 pitches to get into and out of that jam in the tenth, and his spot came due with two outs and none on in the top of the 11th. Still, Girardi sent up third-catcher Francisco Cervelli to hit for Rivera, leaving just Jose Molina and Freddy Guzman on the bench (I assume Guzman can’t throw either, or he’d have been a much simpler defensive replacement for Damon). Facing Ervin Santana, Cervelli struck out, and Girardi went to David Robertson in the bottom of the 11th, leaving just Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin in his bullpen.

Robertson, who pitched out of a jam in Game Two of the ALDS against the Twins in almost exactly the same manner that Rivera did in the tenth inning of this game, got Juan Rivera to ground out to short and Kendry Morales to fly out to left to start the 11th. Then Girardi popped out of the dugout to bring in Aceves to face Howie Kendrick.

Why?

That will be a question Joe Girardi will be asked until the Yankees win this series, and throughout the winter and possibly beyond if they don’t. Robertson looked good against his two batters, getting ahead 1-2 on Rivera and throwing strike one to Morales before running the count full and getting him to fly out. His postseason mettle had been tested in that jam against the Twins, and the Yankees had just two pitchers left in the pen in part because Chamberlain, Marte, and Coke each threw just one-third of a frame, and Rivera had been taken out after one due to loss of the DH.

Pressed for an answers after the game, pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “We just liked the matchup better.” I understand that to a certain degree. Robertson and Aceves are both right-handers, but Robertson is a power pitcher who challenges hitters with his low- to mid-90s fastball that seems faster due to his delivery and a hard-breaking curve, while Aceves is a kitchen-sink junkballer who changes speeds and keeps hitters off balance. Matchups aren’t always just about handedness or even the raw quality of a pitchers stuff. Sometimes they’re about style, and Girardi and Eiland clearly preferred Aceves’s junkballing against Kendrick, who is something of a right-handed Robinson Cano type, rather than Robertson’s power combo.

What I don’t get is why they felt they had to make a move with two out and none on. Yes, Kendrick had homered earlier in the game, but that was off the lefty Pettitte. Kendrick has just 12 homers in 963 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in his major league career. If Kendrick got a hit, Girardi and Eiland could concern themselves about the best matchup against the typically weak-hitting Mathis (which very well may have been Aceves as well, but I suspect would have been Robertson).

As it was, Aceves fell behind Kendrick 2-0, then 3-1, and Kendrick hit the 3-1 pitch back up through the middle for a single. Aceves then threw ball one to Mathis after which Mathis crushed a shot to the left-field gap that scored Kendrick with the winning run, handing the Yankees their first loss of the postseason, 5-4 in 11 innings.

The loss is a bitter one given the many questionable decisions that led to it, but it may ultimately proove moot. The Yankees still hold a 2-1 lead in the series and have CC Sabathia going Tuesday night in Game Four, giving them a good chance to go up 3-1. Of course, the Yankee offense will have to contribute as well. The Yankees’ four runs in this game came on a quartet of solo homers (by Derek Jeter leading off the game, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada), but they left ten other men on base, not counting Gardner, who was erased by a well-timed pitchout. The Yankees are 5-1 thus far this postseason, but they’ve scored exactly four runs in all but the first of those games and needed extra innings in two of them to get to that underwhelming total.

The Yankees need to turn the page quickly from this exhausting and dispiriting loss. They’re still in great shape in this series, but given their history in Anaheim, it’s easy to see how this loss could get into their heads. Yankee fans should be glad it’s not Chad Gaudin or Joba Chamberlain starting Game Four.

Must-Have

In every postseason series there are certain games that, based on the starting pitchers, teams consider built-in wins. These are the games that a team believes it has to win in order to, if you’ll pardon the mixed-sports metaphor, hold serve in the series. For the Yankees, those games are the ones started by CC Sabathia (they’re 2-for-2 thus far). For the Phillies, they’re the games started by Cliff Lee (3-for-3). For the Dodgers, they’re the games started by Clayton Kershaw (their loss in his Game One start is why they’re trailing in the NLCS).

The Angels’ must-win games are those started by this afternoon’s starting pitcher, Jered Weaver. The Angels won Weaver’s Game Two start in the ALDS against the Red Sox, taking commanding 2-0 lead in the series on their way to a three-game sweep. Coming into this series, they rejiggered their rotation so that Weaver could make his first start at Angel Stadium, where his ERA this season was nearly two runs better than it was on the road (and is nearly a run better on his career) and where he made his strong ALDS start. Weaver was the Angels’ best starter during the regular season and tonight matches up against Andy Pettitte, the Yankees’ number-three. That’s as close to a favorable pitching matchup as the Angels are going to get prior to John Lackey taking on A.J. Burnett in Game Five. This is a game the Halos have to have.

That would be true even if the Angels didn’t come home down 0-2 in the series, but given that predicament, this game goes from a must-have to perhaps their last chance to save their season. Because both of the games in New York were played as scheduled (despite foreboding forecasts of rain), CC Sabathia remains on schedule to start Game Four on short rest against Scott Kazmir, who struggled in his ALDS start against the Red Sox. If the Angels lose again tonight, Sabathia, who dominated the Halos in Game One, will take the mound with a chance to complete an unexpected Yankee sweep. (I’d quote the unfavorable stats about teams down 0-3 in best-of-seven series, but the lone exception to the rule just happens be the last team to face the Yankees in the ALCS.)

However, if the Angels win tonight behind Weaver, it makes Game Four a must-win for the Yankees, not only because Sabathia is starting, but because another loss there would let the Angels all the way back into the series, tying it up 2-2 and giving Anaheim all of the momentum heading into that Lackey-Burnett matchup in Game Five.

Weaver made three starts against the Yankees this season, the best of which was the one he made at home, when he struck out nine Yankees in six innings on July 11. Still, even in that game, Weaver allowed four runs (three earned), in part due to the two home runs he allowed. One of those homers was hit by Eric Hinske, who was left off the Yankees’ ALCS roster, but the other was hit by Mr. Clutch himself, Alex Rodriguez.

The loser in that game, incidentally, was Andy Pettitte, who gave up six runs on seven hits in just 4 1/3 innings. Pettitte was similarly kicked around in an earlier start against the Angels in the Bronx, but a return trip to Anaheim resulted in a quality-start win on September 21. The difference was the overall improvement in Pettitte’s pitching in the second half, which he maintained with a solid start against the Twins in the clinching game in the ALDS.

In his two postseason starts since returning to the Yankees, Pettitte, who tied John Smoltz for the most postseason wins ever with that win in the Metrodome’s final game, has allowed just one run in 12 2/3 innings, striking out 12 against three walks and no homers. Weaver has a 2.19 ERA in two career postseason starts, both of them coming at home against the Red Sox in the ALDS. He’ll face the usual Yankee lineup this afternoon.

Units Of Measurement

One of my big fears about A.J. Burnett was that he would be the 2009 version of Randy Johnson. In his two years as a Yankee, Johnson won 34 games, struck out 383 men, and had one key run of dominance, posting a 1.93 ERA over his final eight starts of 2005 as the team went 7-1 in those games and won the AL East via a tie-breaker with the Wild Card Red Sox. Those handsome counting stats and one hot stretch belied the fact that Johnson was maddeningly inconsistent and enigmatic, and used Jorge Posada as his scapegoat for his struggles, forcing his manager to pair him up with weak-hitting backup John Flaherty.

Most significantly, Johnson, who was brought in to be the dominant ace who would make the difference for the Yankees in the postseason as he had for the 2001 Diamondbacks who beat the Yankees in the World Series, was awful in both of his postseason starts as a Yankee. To make matters worse, both of those starts were key Game Three rubber matches in best-of-five ALDS series that were tied 1-1. Johnson’s failures put the Yankees in 1-2 holes against the Angels in 2005 and the Tigers in 2006, a game away from elimination, contributing mightily to the team’s first-round exits both years.

Burnett has proven to be a far better teammate than Johnson, but his regular season performance in 2009 was certainly Unit-esque. However, his role in the postseason has thus far been very different. There are two key reasons. The first is that CC Sabathia, not Burnett, is the man the Yankees are counting on to be that dominant post-season ace, and Sabathia has thus far delivered. The second is that Burnett, though he opened the season in the third spot in the rotation behind Sabathia and Chien-Ming Wang, is not starting those crucial Games Three. Instead he’s following Sabathia, which means that thus far both of his starts have come with the Yankees up 1-0. That’s a much lower risk situation as a Burnett stinker would do no worse than tie the series with plenty of games left to play.

Also, to Burnett’s credit, he pitched well against the Twins in his first career postseason start. It was a typical Burnett outing in which he put more men on base (seven, five via walk plus two hit by pitch) than got there via hits (three), but the end result was just one run alowed in six innings and, ultimately, a Yankee win.

Tonight he looks to put the Yankees up 2-0 against the arch-rival Angels and lefty Joe Saunders, once again pitching to Jose Molina. As for Saunders, he’s been excellent since returning from an August DL stay, going 7-0 in eight starts with a 2.55 ERA, including a strong 8 1/3-inning outing against the Yankees in Anaheim on September 21. The DL stay was due to a tight shoulder, and it seems the two weeks off were exactly what he needed.

Outside of Molina batting ninth, the Yankee order is the same as last night, including Hideki Matsui DHing against the lefty (because he hits them well, and so that Posada can sub in for Molina once Burnett is out of the game).

Despite forecasts of rain, it’s still dry in northern New Jersey a half-hour before first pitch. Still, the bitter cold could negatively effect Burnett’s ability to grip his knuckle-curve, giving sinker/slider pitcher Saunders and edge. If so, perhaps Girardi will get Posada in the game even earlier, as it was Burnett’s doubts about Posada’s ability to block that curve in the dirt that led to his preference for Molina.

¡Si, Si!

Sabathia pumps his fist after ending the 7th with a strikeout of Mike Napoli (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)In the previous two postseasons, CC Sabathia went 1-3 in four starts with a 9.47 ERA and 2.32 WHIP. It seems clear now that his struggles were due to exhaustion. In 2007, Sabathia threw a major league leading 241 regular season innings. That was nearly 50 more innings than he had thrown the previous year, and 31 more than his previous career high. In 2008, he threw a dozen more innings than in 2007 and pitched on three-days rest in his last three starts in September.

This year, Joe Girardi and Dave Eiland never once asked Sabathia to start on short rest during the season and gave him an extra day or two of rest before 12 of his 34 starts. Sabathia finished the year with “just” 230 innings pitched. As a result, his postseason line after two starts looks like this: 14 2/3 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 15 K, 1.23 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 2-0.

The Yankees got two runs in the bottom of the first of Game One of the ALCS Friday night thanks to a pair of defensive miscues by the Angels, who played a sloppy game on a frigid night in the Bronx. Sabathia made those two runs stand up for eight innings, and Mariano Rivera closed the door in the ninth, giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the series. That’s really all you need to know, but here are the details.

After Sabathia pitched around a two-out single by Torii Hunter in the top of the first, a hit that would prove to be one of just four Sabathia allowed on a night in which just five Angels reached base, Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the first with a classic opposite-field single off John Lackey. Johnny Damon, who went 1-for-12 in the Division Series against the Twins, but spent the layoff in between series working on his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long, particularly on reducing his head movement, followed with an opposite field single of his own, dropping a hit down near the left-field foul line. Ex-Yankee Juan Rivera gathered up the ball, but his throw to second was off-line, allowing Damon to move to second. After Mark Teixeira flew out to shallow left, Alex Rodriguez lifted a sac fly to center to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead. Lackey then got Hideki Matsui to pop out behind third, but shortstop Erick Aybar didn’t hear third baseman Chone Figgins tell him to take the ball and it fell in between the two of them for what was absurdly ruled a single as Damon scored the second Yankee run of the inning.

That was all Sabathia would need. In the top of the fourth, Vlad Guerrero hit what looked like a home run to the visiting bullpen in left center, but the ball hit off the Plexiglas wall and Guerrero, in his home run trot, cruised into second with a double. He later scored on a Kendry Morales single, but that was the only run the Angels managed all night. Sabathia didn’t give up another hit the rest of the night, retiring 13 of the next 14 Angel batters (the exception being a walk to Morales in the seventh).

Meanwhile, the Yankees added some insurance runs. Damon led off the fifth with a double and scored on another by Matsui. Alex Rodriguez walked in between the two and ran through a stop sign to try to score on Matsui’s hit. The throw beat Rodriguez to the plate, but despite an awkward collision, catcher Jeff Mathis never actually tagged him. Nonetheless, Alex was ruled out and no one argued the call. It was just as well, he should have obeyed his third base coach (Alex admitted his mistake after the game, saying he had put his head down too early), and the run wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.

In the sixth, Melky Cabrera, another ALDS scuffler who had a good night, going 1-for-2 with a pair of free passes, walked, moved to second when Lackey’s attempted pick-off throw dove into the runner and got past Morales at first base, then scored on a single to center by Jeter. Jeter’s hit took an unexpected hop on Torii Hunter in center, getting past Hunter and allowing Jeter to go to second, but the extra base proved moot. Nonetheless, it was the Angels third error of the game (and should have been their fourth).

Pitching in relief of Lackey in the seventh, righty Jason Bulger loaded the bases with two outs on a pair of walks and a pitch that hit Robinson Cano in the ankle, but both the HBP and the jam left no lasting results as Nick Swisher struck out to end the threat.

Sabathia worked eight full, throwing a reasonable 113 pitchDerek Jeter congratulates Sabathia after the 7th inning (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)es and striking out seven. Rivera came on in the ninth and, after a leadoff walk to Hunter, locked down the 4-1 win. The Yankees take a 1-0 lead in the series and are looking sharp and smart with CC still on schedule to pitch twice more in this series should it reach seven games.

Game On!

The rain has held off all day. Though the skies remain gray and threatening, it seems they’ll get Game One of the ALCS in. I only hope it’s without interruption. Even still, it should be a miserable night to be out there as temperatures dipping into the 30s could get downright icy with some precipitation. In the comments the other day, Sliced Bread compared the weather to an air-conditioned car wash. CC Sabathia has spent his career pitching for teams in Cleveland and Milwaukee, but one wonders if the cold could be partially to blame for his perennially poor Aprils. Either way, here’s hoping he waxes the Angels tonight.

As a sort of pregame show, here’s the latest Bronx Banter Breakdown staring Alex, myself, and Ted Berg talking Yankees-Angels ALCS. My massive series preview is the post below this one. We can’t get any more ready. Play ball!

ALCS: Angels vs. Yankees

This is going to be epic. The ALCS should be pretty good, too.

When the decade began, the idea of a Yankees-Angels rivalry seemed laughable. The Yankees were on their way to their fourth world championship in five years and the Angels hadn’t made the postseason since 1986. Then came 2002. Having come two outs from a fifth title in 2001, the Yankees won the AL East for the fifth year in a row and were matched up against a surprising 99-win Wild Card team from Anaheim in the first round. The Yankees were the clear favorites, but after pulling out a come-from-behind win in Game One thanks to an eighth-inning homer by Bernie Williams, they were swept in the next three games by the relentless Angels, who went on to win the franchise’s first pennant and world championship.

A losing season in 2003 seemed to paint the Halos as a fluke, but they came storming back in 2004 and won their division. Since then, the Angels have won the AL West in five of the last six years, went 30-18 against the Yankees from 2004 to 2008, and beat the Yankees in the ALDS again in 2005 in a nerve-wracking series that saw the Yankees blow fifth-inning leads in Games Two and Three and lose Game Five in large part because of an outfield collision between Gary Sheffield and Bubba Crosby that allowed two runs to score.

It was also that series that, to many minds, sealed Alex Rodriguez’s reputation as a post-season choker. Rodriguez hit .133 in the series and, representing the tying run in the ninth inning of Game Five, followed a Derek Jeter leadoff single with a back-breaking double-play. The trick was that the Angels gave Rodriguez nothing to hit, walking him six times and hitting him twice. As with that double play, Alex got himself into trouble by expanding his zone and swinging at the junk he was being offered, but he still posted a .435 on-base percentage on the series. That devilish and effective strategy came from the mind of manager Mike Scioscia, who took over the Angels in 2000 and has presided over what has been by far the franchise’s most successful decade.

The Angels seemed to have the Yankees’ number again this year when they swept them in Anaheim just before the All-Star break to take a 4-2 lead in the season series, but the Yankees, as they did to the entire league, stormed back in the second half to even the series, thus avoiding losing the season set to the Halos for the first time since 2003.

Both teams swept their way to this year’s ALCS, though the Angels did it in more convincing fashion against a superior opponent, the Red Sox, while the Yankees needed a pair of comebacks to beat the lowly Twins. For the Angels, it is their first ALCS appearance since they beat the Yankees to get there in 2005. For the Yankees, it’s their first since they were victims of the Red Sox’s groundbreaking comeback from a 0-3 deficit in games in 2004. Though both teams are postseason staples, making five of the last six, neither has reached the World Series since the Yankees out-lasted the Red Sox in the epic 2003 ALCS.

The blood isn’t nearly as bad in this matchup, but the Yankees find themselves on an unfamiliar side of this one-sided rivalry. It’s the Bombers who always come up short in this pairing. Having finally escaped the perilous best-of-five format of the Division Series, this rivalry will literally reach the next level over the next week. Though the Yankees are clearly the better team by objective measure, I expect the series will be hard-fought and heart-stopping. My official prediction is Yankees in seven, and I expect nothing less.

(more…)

Kiss My List

I an effort to help bridge the gap between the abbreviated Division Series and the LCS, I’ve had a trio of list-style pieces up on SI.com this week.

The first is a look at the heroes and goats of the four Division Series.

The second is a look at the players on advancing teams who struggled in the LDS and will need to step up their game in the second round.

The last is a photo gallery of the 15 most significant blunders in postseason history (not including blown calls or questionable managerial decisions), ranked and captioned by yours truly (start at 15 and click “back” to count down to number-one).

There’s plenty of Yankees (and Angels) material in each one, including this rather disturbing scene from the last playoff game between the two teams, which the Yankees will work to erase from their fans minds starting tomorrow night.

Adam Kennedy's "triple," Game Five, 2005 ALDS

Finally Got A Piece Of The Pie

Mark Teixeira celebrates his game-winning home run as he rounds first (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)I don’t even know where to start. The Yankees beat the Twins 4-3 in 11 innings in Game Two of the ALDS on Friday night in the Bronx in what might have been the most exciting Yankee postseason win since the Aaron Boone game in 2003.

Starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Nick Blackburn matched zeros for five innings. Blackburn allowed only a walk to Hideki Matsui before Robinson Cano, who along with Mark Teixeira was one of just two Yankee starters who went hitless in Game One, singled with two outs in the fifth. Burnett put runners on in every inning, but stranded them in the first five.

The first big play of the game came in the top of the fourth. After getting two quick outs, Burnett hit Delmon Young in the back and Carlos Gomez in the hand to put runners on first and second. Matt Tolbert then lined a clean single to shallow right center for what looked like the first RBI hit of the game, but Gomez took a wide turn around second then slipped. With Derek Jeter standing on second screaming for the ball, Nick Swisher fired to second to catch Gomez off the bag just moments before Young was able to cross home, ending the inning without a run scoring.

The Twins finally broke the scoreless tie in the top of the sixth after Young drew a one-out walk and stole second as Gomez struck out. Tolbert was due up, but had come down with a strained oblique, forcing Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to pinch-hit with Brendan Harris. Harris, who hit .238/.289/.340 against right-handers on the season, took to 3-1, then launched a bomb to the left-field gap. Johnny Damon did his jump-and-fall-down routine in a hopeless attempt to catch the ball, and the ball ricocheted off the wall and got past Melky Cabrera giving Harris an RBI triple. Burnett stranded Harris by getting Nick Punto to ground out on what proved to be his last pitch of the night. Then the Yankees answered back.

With Burnett out of the game, Joe Girardi sent Jorge Posada up to hit for Jose Molina. Posada flew out, but Derek Jeter crushed a ground-rule double to right center, and two batters later the new Alex Rodriguez delivered yet another two-out RBI single to tie the game.

Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke split a scoreless seventh. John Rauch answered with a 1-2-3 inning of his own. That passed the ball to Phil Hughes in the eighth. Taking his cue from Burnett, Hughes got two quick outs and had the crowd roaring “Huuuughes” with the count 1-2 on Gomez, but then issued three straight balls to put Gomez on base. That man Harris followed with a single that sent Gomez to third (and nearly to home). That brought up Nick Punto, the Twins gritty, gutty, scrappy, crappy ninth hitter. Punto took to 2-2, fouled off a pitch, then singled through the middle scoring Gomez with the go-ahead run.

Crap.

Joe Girardi then brought in Mariano Rivera who, as the TBS announcers reported, had allowed just 3 hits in 50 at-bats with men in scoring position in his postseason career. That became 4-for-51 as Denard Span singled Harris home to give the Twinks a 3-1 lead. Watching Rivera give up an insurance run, the Yankee Stadium crowd fell dead silent.

Twins set-up ace Matt Guerrier and Rivera exchanged scoreless innings, handing that 3-1 lead to Joe Nathan in the ninth. The first time these two teams met this season, the Yankees opened the series with a trio of walk-off wins at Yankee Stadium. In the first of those, Joe Nathan was handed a two-run lead in the ninth only to cough up both the lead and the game, one of just two losses Nathan suffered on the season.

Perhaps I had that game in the back of my mind, because looking at the Yankee batters due up–Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui–I was convinced the Yankees would get a bloop from Teixeira and a blast from Rodriguez to tie the game.

Guess what?

Teixeira hit a 1-1 rope into right field for a lead-off single, and Alex Rodriguez, after taking to 3-1, crushed a fastball to the back wall of the Yankee bullpen in right for a game-tying home run.

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A.J.’s Turn

Game One of this ALDS couldn’t have gone much better for the Yankees. CC Sabathia was sharp, every starter but Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano got a hit, including Alex Rodriguez who had a pair of RBI singles, the key end-game relievers (Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, and the re-purposed Joba Chamberlain) got their postseason spikes dirty with a big lead and a day off to follow, and, most importantly, the Bombers extended their regular season dominance of Minnesota with a 7-2 victory. Yesterday, however, gave the exhausted Twins, who in the 25 hours before the first pitch of Game One had played 12 innings to save their season then flown half way across the country, a much-needed day of rest, and Game Two brings another Yankee starting pitcher with a lot to prove.

I was an outspoken opponent of the five-year, $82.5 million contract the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett to in December. With one of those five regular seasons in the books, Burnett has exceeded my expectations in just one way: he stayed healthy and took every one of his turns throughout the season. That’s no small thing, but the net result of Burnett’s 33 starts wasn’t quite what you’d expect from a $16.5 million pitcher, and there are still four more years in which Burnett could well validate my concerns about his injury history.

The contract doesn’t matter tonight. All that matters is how well Burnett pitches in his first postseason start, which is why Joe Girardi has opted to start Jose Molina behind the plate despite the huge drop in production he represents at the plate compared to Jorge Posada. Opposing batters have hit just .221/.307/.352 against Burnett with Molina behind the plate compared to .270/.353/.421 with Posada receiving him. Supposedly the difference is due in part to Burnett’s lack of confidence in Posada’s ability to block his sharp curve in the dirt, which results in Burnett failing to break the pitch off properly when throwing to Posada. Burnett led the league in wild pitches, and one would assumes a certain percentage of those were pitches Burnett thought Posada should have blocked.

Burnett’s breaking point seemed to come in his August 12 start, when, with Posada catching, he uncorked three wild pitches then refused to talk about the issue after the game, saying bruskly, “I’d rather not talk about the wild pitches.” Up to that game, Posada caught 13 of Burnett’s starts while Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Kevin Cash caught the other ten, five of them coming when Posada was on the disabled list. After that August 12 start, Posada caught just three more of Burnett’s starts, while Molina caught seven. Burnett didn’t thrown another wild pitch after August 12, but two of the three times he pitched to Posada he was rocked, giving up nine runs in five innings to the Red Sox on August 22, and six runs in 5 1/3 innings to the lowly Orioles on September 1. Those were the last two Burnett starts caught by Posada.

That’s why Joe Girardi is sitting a .285/.363/.522 hitter in a playoff game in favor of a man who has hit .217/.273/.298 in 406 at-bats over the last two seasons. I believe Posada himself said it best when he said, in reaction to the news that Molina would be starting, “I just hope we win that game.” Burnett’s need for Molina behind the plate only adds to the pressure he’ll be feeling tonight in his first career postseason start (he was out following Tommy John surgery when his Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series). The contract may not matter tonight, but Burnett will by trying to live up to it.

As for how he did in the regular season, Burnett’s aggregate line was actually no better than the no-name Twins sophomore he’ll face tonight:

A.J. Burnett: 4.04 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 2.01 K/BB, 33 GS, 21 QS
Nick Blackburn: 4.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB, 33 GS, 19 QS

Those lines are damn similar, with Blackburn holding the edge in the three key rate stats, which just goes to show how overrated Burnett really is. As for the 27-year-old Blackburn, his final 2009 line is almost an exact match for his 2008 rookie campaign, which means the Twins can now expect this sort of production from him. Blackburn’s WHIP is high because he led the league in hits allowed. Burnett’s is high because he led the league in walks with a career-high 97. That is also why A.J.’s K/BB is so low (because of all those walks, Burnett’s WHIP and K/BB this year were his worst since 2003, when he made just four starts).

Of course, Burnett and Blackburn are far from similar pitchers, as their strikeout and walk rates reveal:

Burnett: 8.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
Blackburn: 4.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9

Better all those walks and strikeouts than all those hits, but you’d rather see a pitcher keep his opponents off the bases altogether.

Both pitchers finished the regular seaosn strong. In his last four starts (all with Molina catching), Burnett posted a 1.88 ERA, struck out 28 men in 24 innings, and allowed just one home run. In his last four starts, Blackburn posted a 1.65 ERA and walked just one man in 27 1/3 innings.

Blackburn last faced the Yankees on May 16. He took a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning of that game only to let the Yankees tie it up in that inning (and ultimately win it in extras). Burnett faced the Twins twice this year, both times allowing just two runs in six-plus innings, but walking ten in those 13 frames.

The Twins have made one tweak to their lineup tonight. Jason Kubel is DHing, Denard Span is in right, and Carlos Gomez is in centerfield and batting in place of the team’s no-name DH platoon. Alex suggests this is because the Twins want to run on Burnett, but while A.J. allowed 23 steals on the year, he and his catchers caught 34 percent of attempting basestealers, that compared to a 25 percent league average and Jose Molina and Jorge Posada’s matching (yes, matching) 28 percent throw-out rates.

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Projecting the Postseason Roster

The Yankees are clearly using their final 20 games to figure out who will make their 25-man roster for the ALDS. That’s why minor league journeyman speedster Freddy Guzman is on the major league roster and why relievers such as Brian Bruney are getting game opportunities that otherwise seem unearned given their overall performance.

There are still some questions that need to be answered, chief among them whether or not David Robertson will be available and effective by season’s end, but prompted by Joe Girardi’s use of Bruney and Jonathan Alabaladejo last night and Brian Cashman’s comments about Joba Chamberlain (coming up), I thought I’d weigh in on the subject.

First, here are Cashman’s comments on Joba via Pete Caldera’s blog:

He needs to declare himself. He’s no different than anyone else. Everybody loves his tenacity,but we’re going to take the best 10 guys. There’s no assumptions there. He’s put himself in a position where the manager has to make a decision that there’s not one guy ahead of him that he needs to give the ball to. He might not realize it, but he’s in competition with any number of guys to take the ball.

Also relevant to Joba’s situation is the fact that the Yankees, assuming they finish with the best record in the league, will be able to chose which of the two ALDS schedules they’ll play. One would require a normal four starters, but the other includes and extra off-day and would allow them to use just three starters in the first round. Given how Chamberlain has pitched of late, I’m guessing they’ll go with the three-starter scenario.

While I would understand the team trying to send a message to Joba by leaving him off the ALDS roster (while simultaneously allowing him to pitch simulated games to stay ready for the ALCS), I’d be surprised to see them pass up the chance to use him out of the bullpen in the ALDS.

Cashman’s quote indicates that the Yankees will bring just ten pitchers to the ALDS, which should result in something like this:

Rotation:

L – CC Sabathia
L – Andy Pettitte
R – A.J. Burnett

Bullpen:

R – Mariano Rivera
R – Phil Hughes
L – Phil Coke
R – Alfredo Aceves
R – Joba Chamberlain
L – Damaso Marte
R – Chad Gaudin

Marte has allowed a run in just one of his eight appearances since returning from the DL. In those eight appearances, he hasn’t allowed any of his ten inherited runners to score, hasn’t allowed a home run, and has struck out six in 5 1/3 innings against two walks. Gaudin, whose start tonight could significantly reinforce or undermine his chances for making the postseason roster, has a 3.68 ERA as a Yankee and can be an effective long-man in case of an early exit by a starter, a deep extra-inning game, or can eat innings in a blowout.

Note that David Robertson is currently rehabbing a sore elbow and was last seen playing catch at 60 feet. If he’s able to return effectively during before the season ends, he could bounce Marte, Gaudin, or even Chamberlain from the roster.

So, if the Yankees are only taking ten pitchers, who are their 15 position players? First the starting nine:

1B – Mark Teixeira
2B – Robinson Cano
SS – Derek Jeter
3B – Alex Rodriguez
C – Jorge Posada
RF – Nick Swisher
CF – Melky Cabrera
LF – Johnny Damon
DH – Hideki Matsui

Then the top bench guys:

CF – Brett Gardner
OF – Eric Hinske
UT – Jerry Hairston Jr.
C – Jose Molina

That leaves two spots, which is where you might find a third catcher (Francisco Cervelli) a bonus speed-and-defense player (Freddy Guzman), or an extra infielder (Ramiro Peña). Given the lack of opportunities given to Shelly Duncan since his recall, I don’t think he’s being considered as a right-handed pinch-hitting option. By that same token, Guzman has only appeared in two games thus far, suggesting that he’s not being seriously considered either. It could be that one of those spots goes to a healthy Robertson, giving the Yankees 11 pitchers and an eight-man bullpen in the ALDS.

There are 11 games left on the Yankees’ regular season schedule, including tonight’s. That’s enough time for those last two bench players to make themselves known or for certain relievers to pitch themselves on or off the roster. Alabaladejo and Bruney did themselves no favors last night. We’ll see if Gaudin can do better tonight.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver